Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Peace I Leave Unto You

As long as I am trying to remember why I got into blogging by reorganizing this site and indexing good series (and finishing series), etc., I should highlight the great times I have had participating as a guest blogger in others’ series.  One of those was the 6 part series, My Peace I Leave Unto You. This was a series of guest posts on Christian pacifism in different church traditions hosted by Halden at the blog, Inhabitatio Dei (Latin for “Living in God,” or “Inhabiting God.”) The six posts, all autobiographical, covered Christian pacifism in the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement; a Reformed/Congregationalist pacifism; an Anabaptist-leaning Baptist pacifism (mine); Christian pacifism from a non-denominational, U.S. evangelical (Wheaton College) perspective; a Free Church pacifism; and an Eastern Orthodox pacifism.  You can find all six posts here.  I reprint mine below.  I enjoyed all of them and hope Halden will restart the series, recruiting authors who are (a)female, (b) from outside the Anglo-American world, (c) Catholic, etc.

Gospel Nonviolence: An Anabaptist-Baptist Approach

A guest-post by M. L. Westmoreland-White

When Halden asked me to contribute to this series, I suddenly felt as if I was failing to heed the Petrine command to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands an accounting of the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15b).” Do I really know what “my tradition” of Christian pacifism looks like?

The problem is that I was not raised in a peace church tradition, and my denomination, the Baptists, have never been a “peace church,” though we have always had a pacifist minority. That minority has been larger or smaller, less influential or more, in various times and places–but always a minority. (For a survey of this tradition see Paul R. DeKar, For the Healing of the Nations: Baptist Peacemakers[Smyth & Helwys, 1993.]) I came to gospel nonviolence from the U.S. military, so my “pacifism” may be a reaction, a rebellion, as much as a theological tradition. I was not formed in nonviolent virtues like a Mennonite, Quaker, or member of the Church of the Brethren would have been. So, I feel unworthy to participate in this series. But here goes, anyway.

Baptists began as radical Puritans who were influenced at key points by Dutch Anabaptists. The General, or more Arminian/Free Will, Baptists began earlier (1609-1611) with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and were influenced by Waterlander Mennonites from Amsterdam. The Particular, or more Calvinist, Baptists (who were to become the dominant strand) began a generation later (1638-1644) and were influenced by Collegiant Mennonites (and a translation of Menno Simons’ Foundation-Book) from Leiden. From the Anabaptists, we Baptists took a radically Christocentric orientation and an emphasis on a visible church and active discipleship. From the Reformed/Puritan heritage, we took a strong emphasis on God’s Sovereignty and Christ’s Lordship over all of life (thus rejecting either Lutheran or Anabaptist “two-kingdoms” thinking).

Both those strands inform my pacifism. Because Christianity is “following after” Jesus Christ, I must love my enemies and be an active peacemaker. The Anabaptist heritage (mediated to me especially, but not only, via John Howard Yoder) keeps my pacifism centered in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of Jesus’ teachings. It means that my refusal to kill is part of a larger pattern of non-conformity to “the world.” That pattern includes simplicity of living (striving against materialist consumerism), radical egalitarianism in home, church, and society (resisting the heirarchies of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation), mutual servanthood, economic sharing. The Anabaptist orientation means that I cannot separate my love of God (my “spiritual life” or piety) from my love of neighbors–and that I must continually recognize personal, communal, or national enemies as tests of the seriousness of that neighbor love.

Because God is Sovereign and Christ is Lord over ALL of life (not just Lord of the Church or of some “inner realm”), then my nonviolent witness cannot be apolitical. The Baptist defense of “separation of church and state” is not out of any Lutheran “two-kingdoms” theology in which God works through the state with a radically different ethic (the Left hand of God, as Luther put it) from the ethic of personal relations in which the Gospel is to be followed. The idea that “religion and politics have nothing to do with each other” is heresy. Rather, we Baptists (at our best) defend the institutional separation of church and state precisely so that the church is free to give prophetic witness to the state.

Baptists, at least, non-fundamentalist Baptists, are fond of self-descriptions that use a set of principles, axioms, or “identity markers,” rather than by reference to a formal “creed” of confession of faith. Though, unlike our “cousins” in the Stone-Campbell movement, we Baptists have often written confessions of faith, we have seldom treated them as creedal “tests of orthodoxy,” but as guides to biblical interpretation and witnesses to outsiders of our faith. We have often given these statements elaborate “preambles” that deny their creedal status and explicitly claim that they are not to be used as substitutes for simple faith in Christ and that they are always subordinate to biblical authority. Many Baptists have identified with the Restorationist motto of “No Creed but the Bible,” whatever other disagreements we have with those we often term “Campbellites.”

Consider one widely popular such list of “Baptist identity markers”:

  • Biblicism, understood not as preference for one or another theory of inspiration (or “inerrancy”), but as the humble acceptance of the authority of Scripture for both faith and practice and accompanied by a Christocentric hermeneutic. (This is related to the Baptist “primitivism” which desires to replicate “New Testament churches.”)
  • Liberty, understood not as the overthrow of all authority for an anarchic individualism, but as the church’s God-given freedom to respond to God without the intervention of the state or other Powers. (Related themes are intentional community, voluntarism, “soul competency,” and separation of church and state.)
  • Discipleship as normative for all Christians and so understood neither as a vocation for the few nor an esoteric discipline for adepts, but as life transformed into service by the lordship of Jesus Christ. (Signified by believers’ baptism–usually by immersion to signify the believer’s identification with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to new life; related themes are “the rule of Christ,” and “the rule of Paul.”)
  • Community, understood not as some group’s privileged access to God or to sacred status, but as sharing together in a storied life of witness to Christ exercised in mutual aid and in service to others. (Signified by Communion or Holy Eucharist, most often called by Baptists the Table or Supper of the Lord; a related theme is the regenerate or believers’ church, i.e., the concern for churches of “visible saints.”)
  • Mission or evangelism, understood not as an attempt to control history for the ends we believe to be good, but as the responsibility of all Christians to bear witness to Christ–and to accept the suffering that such witness often entails. (The deep missionary impulse is connected to claim that all true faith is voluntary and uncoerced and thus leads back again to the defense of liberty of conscience for all–including for those whose views we deem wrong or even wrongheaded.)

Now, I do not claim that pacifism or gospel nonviolence is entailed or demanded by any vision formed by such identity markers. That claim is too strong considering how many non-pacifist Baptists there are! Rather, my (slightly more humble) claim is simply that gospel nonviolence fits such a vision and that each of these “identity markers” are strengthened and their unity more apparent in pacifist perspective. If space permitted, I could run through each marker and spell out the pacifist implications, but I leave that to the reader’s own reflections. It is my rather audacious claim that the pacifist minority among Baptists for our 400 years have had it right: That gospel nonviolence makes us more authentically Baptist, as well, of course, as more authentically Christian.

So “my” pacifism has a deeply “Baptist” shape as well as ecumenical influences. It is informed by the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch and the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (both Baptists), as well as from the nonviolent strands of liberation theologies. I deeply adhere to a saying from Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Biblical peace, shalom, is a product of justice–of right relationships throughout society. So, “my” pacifism, must always be an activist peacemaking: Engaging in nonviolent struggle for a better world–not in a vain attempt to “bring in the Kingdom,” (God does that–although God may use us as instruments), but to bear witness of God’s character and actions for redemption–and, to prepare the way for the Ultimate realization of God’s Reign by penultimate actions for a relatively just and peaceful world. (See Bonhoeffer’s Ethics).

It has been said that Baptists are “practical idealists.” Insofar as I belong to a tradition of Christian pacifism, it is one informed by the practical idealism of the Anabaptists of the 16th C., the “democratic” impulses of early Baptists like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Bunyan, and Richard Overton; the Levellers of the 17th C., 19th C. abolitionists and evangelical feminists, of Social Gospel and Civil Rights radicals, and of nonviolent struggles for justice globally. With such “practical idealism” I try to bear witness to the nonviolent Christ who is my Lord.

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July 19, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, human rights., peacemaking | 1 Comment

Peace Blogger Interviews

Remember the Peace Blogger interviews? I got to 9 of them before I had to take a break. Well, I have placed those 9 in a new page at the top of this blog.  The Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring has grown so large since I founded it that I haven’t been able to keep up or visit a fraction of the blogs now available. However, I do have several interviews that I never published in this series and I’ll try to see about publishing them in the not too distant future future.

July 19, 2008 Posted by | blog-ring, peacemaking | 2 Comments

GLBT Persons in the Church: A Positive Word from Jesus?

It is commonly said by those on all sides of this debate that Jesus said nothing whatsoever pertaining to “homosexuality.”  Traditionalists conclude that Jesus simply accepted the Levitical prohibitions (and the negative view of 1st C. Judaism) without question.  Revisionists conclude that Jesus was unconcerned about same-sex issues and that contemporary Christians are free to take Jesus’ overall liberating views on the dignity and equality of all persons as our guide.

But there is one ambiguous passage in the Gospels in which Jesus MAY have indicated an openess to same-sex covenantal love.  I want to be very cautious here.  I have been told about a Norwegian woman (a Baptist pastor, actually) who completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  She investigated this pericope rather thoroughly. But the dissertation has not yet been published and so I have not seen the evidence for her conclusions. So, what follows, is a possibility that bears further investigation–but without that further investigation would be (in Lee’s words about how Richard Hays treats Rom. 1 on the other side of this debate) “too thin a reed on which to build a case one way or the other.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce (except for porneia, indicating some kind of sexual sin, usually thought to be adultery), using God’s created intentions to overturn Mosaic law (which allowed men to seek divorce). The disciples, blown away by the idea that they may have learn conflict resolution with their wives, mutter that it may be better not to marry at all.

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The one who can accept this word, should do so.” Matt. 19:11-12.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was advocating celibacy, but that is not clear.

  • The word “eunuchs” is not really an English translation of the Greek ενουκοι. Rather, it is simply a transliteration. 
  • Because of the influence of the KJV, modern English uses the term “eunuch” to mean a castrated male. But did the term have that meaning in the ancient world?
  • In the dissertation to which I have referred (but I have seen only a summary, not the evidence),  a broad range of materials is consulted and it seems that “eunuch” had a much wider meaning in the 1st C. Mediterranean world–referring to any male who deviated from the cultural norm of marrying and begetting children. It was even used to refer to men who married and did not beget children. It was also used, I am given to understand, to refer to men who had longterm male lovers–NOT to pederasts or to temple prostitutes, etc.
  • Now, traditionally, this passage has been used to endorse celibacy, but the topic under discussion is marriage.
  • Jesus says that some are eunuchs (that is, men who do not marry and beget children) because they were made that way by men. These are probably castrated males such as many cultures used for herem guards.
  • Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the early church, Origen took this to mean that some should castrate themselves and he did so.  Fortunately, most of the church did not follow this pattern.  Those who would be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” have been voluntarily celibate–as apparently Jesus and Paul were. (In light of his belief that Jesus would return any minute, Paul wished all Christians were “as I am”–apparently meaning celibate, but recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 7:7–a chapter in which Paul also indicates that an acceptable basis for Christian (heterosexual) marriage is to control one’s otherwise uncontrollable lust! Nice.)
  • Jesus says some eunuchs “were born that way.” Is he talking only of males born with some genital defect? Or is referring also to men who do not marry and have children because they were born with desires for their own sex?

Caution: Even if Jesus has people we would call “gay” or “lesbian,” those with homosexual orientation, in mind as part of the category of “born eunuchs,” the passage does not indicate what Jesus would have them do–except that it is clear that, contrary to his own Jewish culture, he does not order them to marry or condemn them for not marrying.  “Family” takes on broader than biological meaning in Christianity.  But Jesus does not say, “all born eunuchs must remain celibate,” either.

Is this a veiled positive word for gay and lesbian Christians?  I don’t think it is clear, but I do think it is a possibility worth further investigation.

Let those accept this who can.

Next, I will wind up this series by moving beyond reading of the few texts in Scripture relating to this topic to giving a theological rationale for welcoming and affirming GLBT Christians fully into the life of the church, including blessing same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage.

July 19, 2008 Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 8 Comments

Repost: Theological Confessions

Jonathan Marlowe reminds me that I had let the series on GLBT persons in the church slide for 18 long months. I truly apologize, Gentle Readers. I stopped blogging altogether because of depression for awhile and got sidetracked to other things. Also, I found that I had loaned out my copy of Hays’ book and could not give my reply to him entirely from memory.  I hope to finish the biblical exegesis today and give final arguments this weekend.

In the meantime, I have decided to turn some of these series into separate pages of posts–reorganizing this blog some.  And, for your early a.m. reading pleasure, let me remind you that over a year ago (June ’07) I participated in a “meme” known as “Out of the Closet: Theological Confessions.” The series was revealing and funny. You can find the entire list at Australian theologian Ben Myers’ great blog, Faith and Theology.  My contribution is repeated below and if new people participate, send the link and I’ll keep track and let Ben know–because it was great fun and a break of the super-serious discussions.

As started here, there is now a theological confessions meme. I confess that I hesitated to play because, just as some of the others have phrased their “confessions” in ways that might make some folk angry, so my own contribution is likely to ruffle feathers–and I do that enough anyway.  But, here goes anyway.

I confess that Dispensationalists in general, and “Christian Zionists” in particular, get on my LAST nerve! In the interests of fraternal correction and Middle East peacemaking, I should strive gently to show disciples of Hagee & Co. where they have misunderstood the Election of Israel in God’s economy. Instead,  what I want to do is throw something at them–and I have to restrain myself with great exertion! [I wrote this before the current election year–not knowing that Sen. John McCain would seek and win Hagee’s endorsement for his presidential campaign, nor that they would later mutually repudiate each other.  Everything I wrote is still true.]

I confess, despite the above, that I believe the “parting of the ways” (James D. G. Dunn’s phrase) between synagogue and church was the greatest tragedy in church history, dwarfing even the Constantinian warping of the church into the chaplain of imperial power.  Any theology, and any ecclesiology, which fails to reckon thoroughly with God’s continued covenant loyalty to the Jewish people is deeply, deeply, flawed.

I confess, though I have learned many things from the late Hans Frei (1922-1988), I find him to have one of the most turgid writing styles in late modern theology. He constantly puts me to sleep.

I confess that before last year, I never heard of John Piper, Rick Warren, or Max Lucado.  Now that I have, I don’t think I was missing anything.

 I confess that if double predestination turns out to be true, and some people have been “elected to damnation” from eternity, I will be very, very angry with God.

I confess that I often prefer to read science fiction and detective novels when I should be reading biblical studies, ethics, and theology.

I confess I think my aesthetic sensitivities are underdeveloped (my eyes glaze over when someone mentions “theology and the arts”) and this is one of the reasons I find it difficult to grasp people like Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).

I confess that, after wrestling with the issues and my own homophobia for over a decade and a half, I stand with the revisionists on the church’s sexual theology, vis-a-vis sexual minorities.  Although I am still strongly committed to an ethic of either celibacy or monogamy, I now(for several years, actually) support monogamous marriages for same-sex couples, too. Lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and I see no evidence that it is automatically granted to all gay or lesbian Christians and LESS evidence that sexual orientation can be “cured.”  If this leads to charges of “depravity” charges of defection from biblical authority, and if it leads (as I have evidence it already has) to lost job opportunities in church-related posts–so be it. My gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers have to endure far more just to be given permission to live without hiding.

I confess to being extremely tired of hearing Christian theologians (usually male; often, but not always, evangelical) dismiss all feminist theology by flippantly referring to the post-Christian Mary Daly or the radical Catholic Rosemary Radford Reuther (and I have learned from the latter), without ever seriously wrestling with or even reading the likes of Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Sarah Coakely, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Phyllis Trible, Mercy Amba Odoyuye, Elsa Tamez, etc.  No one of either gender is beyond critique, but the major currents of feminist (womanist, mujerista, etc.) theologies should be important dialogue partners to all serious theologians, today.

I confess that I find it very disheartening that so many theological bloggers, often with excellent theological educations, are so dismissive of, or even ignorant of, the thought of major liberation theologians–from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and from marginalized populations in Europe and North America. 

I confess that although I know that correcting heresy is an important task of theology, I fear authoritarian heretic hunters far more than I fear liberals and heretics.

I confess that I have weak electronic skills. I never owned a computer until it was time to write my Ph.D. dissertation (making do on an electric typewriter before then) and used it only as a glorified wordprocessor until the dissertation was finished. I have never owned a cell phone, blackberry, video game, etc.  I don’t know what a “podcast” is.  But the new i-phone looks so cool, it may awaken the long-buried techno-geek within.

Many of the people I love and trust the most from my church are enamored of communal living on a subsistence farm.  People I admire like Wendell Berry, Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan, shared this utopian dream of small farms as ideal church communities.  I confess that this sounds like hell to me. I am a confirmed urbanite.[NOTE: This is not to disrespect either farmers or my friends with dreams of communal farming. I worked my grandparents’ farm in summers. I have great respect for farmers–I just don’t want to BE one.  I do think that peak oil and global warming will spell the end of SUBURBS–and good riddance.]

I confess that despite my love for the liturgical richness of Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican worship, my abhorrence for authoritarian heirarchies would keep from ever joining those communions even if I did not feel the commitment I do toward Free Church ecclesiology.

I confess that although I agree with Barth in preferring Mozart to Bach, I love jazz, blues, and Southern rock even more.  The Kingdom of God had better have some place to get funky.

I confess that one reason I am so very adamant in insisting on a BODILY resurrection (for both Christ and believers) is that I find it quite impossible to believe in disembodied souls.  The Christian Hope is not for “spiritual afterlife” or “heaven when we die,” but for Resurrection, for the New/Renewed heavens and earth in the fullness of God’s Revolution. One reason I simply cannot get behind “spiritual resurrection” views (Bultmann’s or Willie Marxen’s, Crossan’s or Borg’s, etc.) is that I find that HARDER to believe than bodily resurrection (though the latter is also a difficult conviction to sustain in a world where “what’s dead stays that way”). If all I were offered was a spiritual resurrection, I couldn’t be a Christian at all.

I confess that I am a personalist and existentialist (but preferring Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus to Sartre or Heidegger or Tillich). If there is any major heresy to which I am constantly tempted, it is humanism. (I do try to resist.)
 

I confess I find Cornel West more helpful than John Milbank, Jeff Stout more helpful (at least at times)  than Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Ricoeur more helpful than Hans Frei or George Lindbeck, Seyla Benhabib, Iris Marion Young, and Michael Walzer, more helpful than John Rawls on the one hand or Mary Ann Glendon (who became U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under Bush–one of his better picks) or Jean Bethke Elshtain on the other.

I confess I hope the universalists are right and eventually all are saved and all is redeemed.  (See here for the best defense by a theology blogger.) But I cannot bring myself to actually commit to such a view because my sense of impending JUDGMENT is so real. Thomas Jefferson once remarked (thinking of slavery–including his own inability to free his own slaves) that he trembled for his nation when he remembered that God is just.  I feel that way not only about my nation, but about the Church, especially the evangelical churches of the U.S.–many of whom are still cheerleading war and torture, have rejected the Sermon on the Mount, could care less about the poor, neglect God’s good Creation, foster hatred for Muslims, etc.  I think on these things and I hear God saying in the voice of Amos, “the Day of the Lord will be for you darkness and not light.”

I confess that I have heard Carl F. H. Henry preach twice and both times I was “underwhelmed.”

I confess to being clueless as to what the “Emerging Church” movement is about.  Every time I read an explanation, it seems fuzzier than before.  I fear that it is “rootless,” but I don’t want to pass judgment without understanding.  But the “Friends of Emerging” take the prize for vague descriptions.

I confess I am sometimes envious of the success of other theologians when my own “career” has only resulted in a few small publications and the loss of teaching posts.  This envy is sinful, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t exist.

I confess that I think far too many people read John Howard Yoder through the lenses provided by Stanley Hauerwas and I believe this to be a mistake.  Hauerwas is important, but he differs with Yoder on many points and, at each of those points, I think Yoder was right and Hauerwas is wrong.

I confess that, despite my commitment to pacifism, I love martial arts movies and the James Bond films–despite their thorough participation in the “myth of redemptive violence.”

Well, this could go on forever, so I’ll stop now.

July 19, 2008 Posted by | autobiography, convictions, theology | 5 Comments